"Stuck in Hel Joseon"

University essay from Lunds universitet/Sociologi

Abstract: South Korea is well known for its development miracle: the nation has managed to develop from the state of extreme poverty to the World´s 12th largest economies in a period of five decades. However, the negative consequences and side effects of this rapid growth, and issues of the contemporary Korean society has been less discussed, especially from the perspective of the Korean youth. The millennial generation in South Korea is living in a society, which has been drastically shaped by neoliberal policies and globalization. Combining these features with values and ideals of local culture and Confucian heritage, contemporary Korean society is full of complexities. Based on the media coverage on the current social issues related to contemporary South Korea, there are indicators that the Korean millennials feel “trapped” between the past and present, forced to deal with the expectations of their parents’ generation, and the grim reality of competitive and hierarchical society, where hard work will no longer guarantee upward social mobility and social security. From these premises, an expression ‘Hel Joseon’ has emerged among the Korean youth. ‘Hel Joseon’ is a comparison between the modern society of today and the pre-modern Joseon Dynasty, and the term entails, that South Korea is hellish hopeless society. ‘Hel Joseon’ expresses frustration that stems from economic inequality, unemployment despite having a degree from a top university, the hierarchical class system, excessive working time, and alienation from a society that only works for vested interests. In this thesis, I will discuss ‘Hel Joseon’ as a part of the larger topic of millennial plight taking place on a global level, in relation to the local cultural conditions and features of South Korea’s development trajectory defined by compressed modernization, that have contributed to the hardships of the Korean youth. The theoretical framework of the thesis consists of elements of a strain theory, combined with an application of the concept of relative deprivation. The qualitative research has been conducted as a literature review, that also features interviews with young Koreans, which have been published on online platforms. In conclusion it can be stated, that the dominance of neoliberal hegemony in contemporary South Korea has resulted in conflicts with traditional Confucian values, which have enabled the conditions for the emergence of ‘Hel Joseon’. The millennial generation’s plight can be seen to stem from a notion related to the commodification of human capital in the context of the precarious labour market and competitive society. These premises have hampered the Korean millennials transition toadulthood and shaped the experiences of being a young adult. The hardships related to the phenomena of ‘Hel Joseon’ have led to a collective notion of “giving up” with various aspects of life among the Korean millennials, and an increasing trend of leaving South Korea for a simpler and satisfying life elsewhere.

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